Four consecutive national championships between 2007 and 2010. A 109-match win streak spanning those four seasons. Fourteen Big Ten titles in 21 seasons in the league. Five straight sweeps against the Wolverines.
This is Penn State volleyball.
In short, the top-ranked Nittany Lions were set to wipe the floor with the Wolverines on Saturday night in front of a full house at Cliff Keen Arena. But two hours later, the arena was still locked into a nail-biter between the two Big Ten heavyweights. Penn State ultimately finished with a five-set victory.
“We could have come out saying they’re the number one team and just rolled over, but I think we put up a really good fight,” said junior outside hitter Lexi Erwin. “It was truly a battle from game one.”
The score was point for point thanks to scattered play on both sides until Penn State appeared to settle in, taking an 11-10 lead after a long rally. In the first game alone, there were three lead changes and the score was tied seven times. Eight kills from Penn State’s All-Big Ten junior Ariel Scott and its .306 kill percentage in the first set meant a 25-19 loss for the Wolverines.
Michigan went on to drop the second set in similar fashion by a score of 18-25. But it was a scrappy Wolverine defense that kept both sets tight.
“(Penn State) just hits the ball a little bit faster than most teams we’ve played,” said Michigan coach Mark Rosen. “It’s the reason they’re ranked number one. Our team did a really good job of raising their defensive level.”
Junior defensive specialist Ally Sabol recorded 18 digs while three Wolverines — sophomore setter Lexi Danemiller, freshman libero Tiffany Morales and Lexi Erwin — each picked up 14 digs. All told, the Michigan defense held Scott to 17 kills and set up many of its 64 kills in the match.
“I can’t do what I do unless other people are helping me along. I had the team behind me the whole time.,” said junior outside hitter Molly Toon.
With 10 digs, two blocks and 12 kills of her own, Toon was one of four Wolverines who had kills in the double digits on the night. Junior middle blocker Jennifer Cross contributed with 13 kills and six blocks. But it was the team-leading 22-kill performance from Erwin that had the crowd on its feet through the final three sets.
“The coaches got on me to start being aggressive and that started working,” Erwin said. “I definitely felt supported the whole game, so that was great.”
That aggression came at the right time for the Wolverines, who stole the third set from the Nittany Lions, 25-21. With the energy of the crowd behind them, Erwin and her teammates tied up the match in the fourth set (25-22). Erwin pounded 15 of her 22 kills against Penn State’s rattled defense in the second two sets.
“I loved the way we fought,” Rosen said.
Michigan found itself in an early hole in the final set and could not make up enough ground to outscore the Nittany Lions in 15 short points.
“We had a lot of fun when we were playing,” said Toon. “It’s always great to play the best team in the country and I think we put on a good show.”
Despite the loss, the Wolverines were all smiles after the game. It’s always tough to lose, Rosen said, but against a team like Penn State, the team will call it a personal victory of confidence if nothing else.
“We just played Michigan volleyball,” Rosen said.